To become an FBI agent, what should I major in? It’s a question we hear a lot, because the appeal of working for the FBI is strong – and it’s only getting stronger, with NBC News reporting a significant increase in FBI job applications starting in 2019.
If you’re hoping to join the FBI, you should definitely plan on pursuing an undergraduate degree, because a bachelor’s degree is the minimum level of education required to work in even an entry-level Special Agent or analyst job role with the Bureau.
What’s somewhat less certain is which college major you should choose. Most people think that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is looking for candidates with criminology degrees, but in fact, the list of potential college majors for aspiring FBI agents and analysts is much longer and more diverse than most people think.
Is Criminal Justice the Best Degree for FBI?
Because of the perception that FBI recruiters always want to see candidates with criminology degrees, aspiring agents tend to flock to highly ranked colleges with criminal justice programs. There are quite a few FBI agents who have degrees in criminology and criminal justice, but these options aren’t necessarily the most common or the best degrees for FBI agents. In fact, very few positions at the FBI have a need for actual criminal justice graduates. That’s because, since the FBI has a particular interest in federal crimes, there is very little of the kind of traditional police work emphasized in a criminal justice program involved in FBI work.
This isn’t to say that majoring in criminal justice is a mistake. This major certainly won’t keep you out of consideration for FBI agent jobs, and the coursework you complete will help you gain new knowledge and abilities that can prepare you for work with the FBI. For example, t0p-notch investigative skills are a necessity for Special Agents, and criminal justice courses in criminal investigation and digital investigations can help you cultivate these skills. Other skills that the FBI prizes and criminal justice degree programs often teach include critical thinking, reasoning and research.
Applicants with degrees in criminology, criminal justice or psychology will certainly have an advantage with law enforcement expertise, but they may have a tougher time getting selected for Special Agent positions than candidates with specialized skill sets.
What to Know About FBI Specialties and Divisions
Did you know there are several distinct FBI divisions and numerous specialties within FBI careers? Most people automatically think of Special Agents when they think of the FBI, but these agents couldn’t do the work they do without the support of analysts and other highly skilled professionals who work for the FBI.
Before choosing a degree, it’s important to decide what type of Special Agent – or analyst, accountant, linguist or other type of professional – one wishes to become. This will help narrow down the career field options and what you should study.
The main FBI branches are:
- The FBI Intelligence Branch, which focuses on gathering intelligence through data analysis, wiretaps and interviews and using that intelligence in the Bureau’s decision-making. The Intelligence Branch of the FBI includes intelligence analysts, language analysts, data scientists and analysts, Special Agents, staff operations specialists and other professional staff.
- The FBI National Security Branch, which encompasses terrorism investigations and the Terrorist Screening Center, as well as Counterintelligence and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Directorate.
- The FBICriminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch, which consists of the Criminal Investigative Division, the Critical Incident Response Group, the Cyber Division, the International Operations Division and the Victim Services Division.
- The FBI Science and Technology Branch, which is responsible for forensic science, operational technology and information sharing to assist with and enhance the Bureau’s investigations and operations.
- The FBI Information and Technology Branch, which encompasses the IT Enterprise Services Division, the IT Applications and Data Division and the IT Infrastructure Division.
- The FBI Human Resources Branch, which includes a Human Resources Division, a Security Division and a Training Division
Each branch and division of the FBI has different mission-essential positions to fill. As a whole, the FBI employs workers in five types of career paths in Operations and Intelligence: Special Agent, intelligence analyst, surveillance professional, forensic accountant and foreign language specialist. The Bureau also employs professionals in 7 specialized career paths: STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), arts and communications, business and administration, facilities and logistics, medical and counseling, legal and police and security.
As of 2021, the FBI is particularly interested in candidates with degrees in finance and accounting, STEM subjects and foreign languages.
Common FBI College Majors Beyond Criminology
Getting into FBI Academy at Quantico is a long and arduous process. It takes hard work, dedication, diligence and commitment. The first step to becoming a Special Agent with the FBI is getting the right college degree.
FBI agents will often come from a variety of different educational backgrounds. Ultimately, it’s the person who becomes the Special Agent, not the degree. The title of your undergraduate program of study will be considered upon review of your application, but so will your technical skills and areas of knowledge, your relevant work experience and the personal qualities that would make you a perfect fit for the FBI. Still, if you’re going for a career with the FBI, you should make sure that you choose a major that is relevant to the skills and areas of knowledge you need.
Are Finance and Accounting Among the Best Degrees for the FBI?
When contemplating a major for your future FBI career, you may have skipped right over programs of study offered out of the business department. Don’t count these majors out just yet. It turns out that many FBI Special Agents have a background in areas like finance and accounting.
All FBI Field Offices across the United States employ forensic accountants, whose work is essential to FBI investigations. If you’re surprised to learn that these majors have value for the FBI, consider the importance of monetary support to the very types of criminal activities and terroristic plots the FBI aims to stop. By using their knowledge of finance and accounting methods and practices to thoroughly analyze the data contained in financial reports, forensic accountants are able to identify and link sources of funding to the criminal activities they enable. A suspicious financial transaction could be the clue that breaks open an FBI investigation and allows Agents to take perpetrators into custody, preventing them from doing any further harm.
When you major in either finance or accounting, you’re going to be working with numbers a lot, both in your degree program and in your future career with and without the FBI. The main difference between these fields is their practitioners’ area of focus. Accounting is the field that is primarily concerned with generating financial reports and documents, while finance more strongly emphasizes the use of financial data to make predictions and decisions about managing wealth and assets. While the math skills required for accounting tend to be more along the lines of basic arithmetic, finance majors will learn more about financial modeling and financial data analysis.
The curriculum of an accounting degree program is likely to include studies in introductory, intermediate and advanced coursework in general accounting, as well as more specific courses in tax accounting, cost accounting, auditing and accounting information systems. Finance majors will also take some accounting coursework, but more of their classes will focus on topics like investments, financial statement analysis, advanced corporate finance, personal finance, commercial bank management, international financial management and new venture finance. Both degree programs typically include some core coursework in related areas of business so that students can see how their area of study fits into the context of business administration as a whole.
Having work experience and professional certifications like the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential are important considerations when applying to the FBI as a prospective forensic accountant. Without compelling experience and professional credentials that set you apart from other accountants and finance professionals, it’s difficult to demonstrate that you have the expertise to help with complex FBI investigations.
STEM Majors as a Fast Track to the FBI
The STEM subjects lead to some of the highest-paying jobs with some of the highest levels of demand in America. Workers in STEM professions find employment in all kinds of industries, and that includes federal government entities like the FBI.
The science component of STEM fields includes all areas of natural, physical and life sciences, such as chemistry, biology and physics. They also include areas like forensic science, a field that is particularly relevant to FBI work because of its emphasis on examining and analyzing evidence obtained in criminal investigations. In fact, the FBI Laboratory is among the world’s largest crime labs, employing 700 scientists and Special Agents.
Technology is another crucial part of the STEM subjects, not to mention the FBI workforce. A background in technology might land you a job in the FBI‘s Operational Technology Division, Cyber Division or Information Technology Branch. Sought-after technology skills include applications software development, computer network analysis and exploitation, computer science, cyber incident response, data and database management, information technology, information security, malware analysis, network management, programming and more.
Engineering is the use of science and math principles and practices to design and develop solutions to many different kinds of real-world problems. Electronics engineers, who focus on the methods and applications of engineering design to electronic devices, are particularly in demand in the FBI Laboratory. Mechanical engineers and software engineers are among the other types of engineers who might find opportunities working for the FBI.
The FBI also hires mathematicians, whose job is to apply the principles and techniques of mathematical sciences to situations such as investigations handled in the FBI laboratory and administrative issues related to the Bureau’s operations.
Each major within the STEM fields has its own unique curriculum. Science majors are likely to involve plenty of laboratory coursework, while technology programs will probably focus on the applications of computer technology. Engineering students need to learn the principles of design and how to bring their design ideas to production. Mathematics students take all kinds of high-level math courses in applied or theoretical math. However, if you want to work for the FBI, an applied math focus is most likely more relevant to your career plans than a theoretical math focus.
While the FBI will certainly want to hire only candidates who have a strong grasp on the underlying concepts and theories of STEM subject areas, what the Bureau will really be looking for is practical and technical skills and the knowledge and experience to apply those skills to its investigations and operations. STEM students should take advantage of opportunities to gain hands-on experience in their field, such as internships, as often as possible.
Foreign Language Degrees for FBI Jobs
The FBI needs applicants with specialized skills, including the skills to speak, read, write and translate other languages. Foreign language degrees are ideal for people who want to work for the FBI as a language specialist. The FBI relies on both language specialists, who are full-time employees of the Bureau, and contract linguists, who are independent contractors who perform services for the FBI for payment.
Historically, the foreign languages FBI has considered to be the most “critical” have been Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Vietnamese, Korean, Farsi, Urdu and Punjabi. These languages are some of the best to pursue a degree in if your goal is to work as an FBI language specialist or contract linguist. However, this is by no means an exhaustive list of languages that the FBI has to deal with in its investigations and operations.
If you aren’t sure what to study but you are sure that you want to work for the FBI, consider speaking with recruiters as early as possible to get firsthand knowledge about what degrees are currently in demand at the FBI and what programs at your college or university most closely apply to the FBI’s goals and needs. You can also join the FBI Teen Academy as a high school student or apply to the Honors Internship Program as an undergraduate.
For Further Reading:
Accredited Online Criminal Justice Degree Programs